No, I’m never a tourist, and neither are you, dear reader. In fact you are just like me, when we travel around the world, looking for new sensations—we are travellers, intrepid travellers, even. Perhaps you flew to Iceland to enjoy the island’s indigenous sounds; its original vibrant authentic culture (a journey I might undertake, were I not already here). But, here’s the rub: is it really original? Is it really indigenous? How authentic is it? Are the musicians just applying face paint and donning grass skirts to entertain us?
Time was that there was not much going in downtown Reykjavík, not much at all; no bars (no beer), no cafés, no live music, no DJs (actually there was a seedy strip club where you could get a drink during the day, and then, for a few years, there were several seedy strip clubs. They are all gone now). The current explosion of bars and coffeehouses and dingy restaurants—many of them with live music—is to a large extent caused by the concurrent explosion in tourism.
Being a musician in Iceland used to be more of an avocation than a job—the market for music, live or recorded, was so small that aspiring musicians never even thought about being able to support themselves by writing or performing music (this is probably one of the factors that contributed to the variety and originality of the local music scene). Most of the musicians started bands because they loved music, some because they loved the music scene, but few because they entertained notions of being able to support themselves by writing or playing music.
The relatively recent influx of tourists changed this—thousands upon thousands of travellers looking for a slice of Icelandic culture and a good time, preferably at the same time do make a difference. Thus, the centre of Reykjavík is now brimming with tourists (intrepid travellers to you, dear reader) every evening and also full of artists catering to those tourists as DJs or musicians. It is now possible for an Icelandic band to make a living by travelling around Europe throughout the winter, performing in miniscule venues and selling a modest amount of records, and it is also possible, for the frugal, to make a living by performing for tourists in Reykjavík.
Obviously, it is a plus that people can make a living doing what they love, and the tourists seem to love it as well. The flipside is bit more nuanced. In the past, a band that wasn’t passionate enough or original enough would soon disappear. However, all of the sudden, you can now be mediocre and (relatively) successful at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, the mediocre can be entertaining, and the bad can be great fun, so this is not a negative development in itself. But, the next time you stagger around downtown Reykjavík soaking up the culture, consider that maybe you are attending a performance set up just for you—and do enjoy it, even if it sometimes isn’t all that authentic.
Árni Matthíasson worked as a trawler sailor for several years, the last few years as a boatswain. He started writing about music in early 1986, with an emphasis on Icelandic music.
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